Editor’s Note: Karina Vargas is a gun violence survivor from Aurora, Colorado. She is a member of the Everytown Survivor Network, a community of survivors of gun violence. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
On Saturday, people across the nation – young and old, from big cities and small towns, of all races, religions and creeds – will take to the streets to say we have had enough. As part of March for Our Lives, we will show the world that Americans will no longer stand for gun violence, which ravages communities and devastates lives on an almost daily basis.
That said, I won’t be walking as part of the march. Instead, I will be rolling my wheelchair through the streets of Denver, surrounded by family and friends, as we call for laws that protect our communities – rather than the gun lobby.
This march is personal for me because, nearly eight years ago, I was shot in a drive-by shooting while standing outside my high school. The bullet that remains lodged in my spinal cord has paralyzed the lower half of my body.
I was 16 years old at the time and in my junior year at Aurora Central High School. I had just finished my last class of the day and was in a rush to go home and get my new Australian shepherd puppy, Barbie, so I could show her off to all my friends. She was so small, she fit in the front pocket of my sweater.
As my friends and I were hanging out, playing with the puppy outside of our school, a black car suddenly made a U-turn and headed straight toward us. As we all scattered to get out of the way, I remember hearing the gunshot – and then I blacked out.
I woke up on the ground, my ears ringing, unable to move my head or any of my body. I could only see my friends running around, and I heard someone scream my name. I felt my puppy shaking in the front pocket of my sweatshirt.
But I couldn’t feel my legs. My vision was blurry. That’s when my friend picked me up, threw me over his shoulder and drove me to the hospital. In and out of consciousness during that car ride, I was terrified. I gasped to my friend, “I’m going to die.”
I woke up again in a hospital room, with braces around my neck and chest, an oxygen tube in my nose and several IVs in my arm. Later, doctors came in and told me I would probably never walk again. Not one moment goes by where I don’t wish I could walk.
At the trial, prosecutors implied that I had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The shooter had been trying to hit people believed to be from a rival gang, who were near where I was standing, but mistakenly hit me instead.
All this to say that while I may not be able to physically stand on my own anymore, I’m raising my voice because this country – and our lawmakers, specifically – need to understand how gun violence affects young people and families in communities all across America.
Too often we see headlines about tragic events at churches, concerts and schools like mine – be it Charleston, South Carolina; Las Vegas; Parkland, Florida; or elsewhere. But eventually the cameras and reporters leave, and survivors like me must carry on. But we grow frustrated, particularly as we see such little action from our local, state and federal legislators.
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This time, I believe the tide has turned – thanks in large part to students around the country who refuse to take no for an answer. These students are schooling their senators on national television and standing up to the “almighty” and dangerous gun lobby. They are strengthening gun control reform legislation and holding the powerful to account.
On Saturday, I will carry the sign that I’ve kept hanging on the wall in my room for six years. It’s a memento from the various rallies and hearings I’ve attended over the years, while advocating for gun violence prevention in Colorado.
It reads, “Let Us Live.”